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The Scottish Play and Scottish independence


Scotland didn’t snap off at Hadrian’s Wall and float away to the sound of bagpipes on 19 September, but in the days before the referendum it looked as though it might. As it happens, we were in Edinburgh at the time for Sarah to attend the British Orthodontic Conference. So while she went off to hear about such things as the effect of enamel pre-treatment on the bonding of orthodontic attachments to hypomineralised enamel or the relationship between maxiliary central incisor proportions and facial proportions, I explored the city and tried to get a sense of its electoral mood. Not for the first time, one of us had the easier ride.

What was immediately evident was that all the energy seemed to be with the ‘Yes’ campaign. This is not surprising, since ‘Yes. Yes. Yes’ sounds like an orgasm and ‘No. No. No’ a miserable Saturday night. Had I been Scottish, I suspect I would have voted for the orgasm, but as an English person I was quietly relieved they went for the miserable Saturday night. Had they chosen otherwise, England might have been left with endless Conservative dominion – though we might be stuck with that anyway.

One of the decisive factors which helped swing voters towards ‘No’ was the late intervention of Gordon Brown. Having grown used to him as an irascible and incompetent figure of derision, he suddenly emerged as passionate, coherent and credible. Bullying the Westminster establishment into granting Scotland all kinds of devolved power, he gave a great barnstorming speech in which, amongst other things, he paraphrased Macbeth arguing that ‘Once it’s done, it’s done’ and concluding that ‘If you have any doubts, and if you don’t know, the answer has to be ‘No!’

Perhaps not surprisingly, Macbeth popped up more than once, not least when a UKip MEP likened Nicola Sturgeon to ‘Lady Macbeth’. Comments such as that make it easy to see why some Scots want nothing to do with the rest of us – and why after centuries of condescension and exploitation a minority simply loathe the English. As an English person in Scotland at the time of the vote for independence, I found myself thinking about Macbeth and felt obliged to view it in new light.

What would someone make of the play if brought up on the bad end of Edward I’s hammering of the Scots and appropriation of the Stone of Destiny, Cromwell, Culloden, the Highland Clearances and imposition of the Poll Tax? How would I feel if it were my country portrayed as a place of blasted heaths, murdering psychopaths, ghosts and weird hags? In brief, what would anyone Scottish make of the ‘The Scottish Play’? I put this question to a friend who has lived in Scotland for more than twenty years, but although of Scottish descent, he was born and educated in Essex, so shared my southern assumptions.

As ever, things are far from straightforward. For one thing, the play was written to flatter a Scot who just happened to have become King of England. And the weird sisters were added in recognition of his interest in witches, James I having written a book, Daemonologie in 1597, while James VI of Scotland. That they inhabited a stormy wilderness is only to be expected, since to someone living in London in 1600, anywhere in the north must have seemed a place of darkness, immorality and wild spaces. I doubt knowing this will prove much consolation to anyone viewing the play as an instrument of cultural imperialism.

If the witches were added to please James, the history in Macbeth was real enough – if heavily distorted to satisfy the king, who believed himself descended from Banquo and Fleance. In Shakespeare’s source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Banquo is complicit in Duncan’s murder though this was written out. In reality, Duncan was defeated in battle near Elgin in 1040. In reality, there was probably no such person as Banquo at all.

Mac Bethad or mac Findlaich, otherwise known as Macbeth, actually ruled for seventeen years rather than the short brutish period depicted in the play. And far from being a bloodthirsty tyrant, it seems he encouraged the spread of Christianity and travelled to meet the pope in Rome in 1050 – something he could not have done had the country been other than well-governed and secure. He was eventually defeated by Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore (‘Bighead’) at the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057 – Malcolm assisted by his uncle, Siward of Northumbria. The latter’s motives were likely to have been mixed, since given the long tradition of cross-border warfare, he was almost certainly looking to strengthen his hold in the region. Malcolm may not have been overly grateful for the help, spending a large part of his thirty five year reign trying to gain possession of Northumbria, though without great success.

Malcolm did not, though, immediately become king after victory at Lumphanan. Instead the monarchy passed to Lulach, Macbeth’s stepson, by his wife Gruoch’s first marriage to Gille Coemgain, Mormaer of Moray. Lulach, however, seems to have been weak and ineffectual and ruled only for a few months before being murdered by Malcolm who then assumed the kingship, slaughtering the rest of Macbeth’s family to make assurance double sure. Such violence wasn’t particularly uncommon. Of the fourteen kings who ruled Scotland between 943 and 1097, ten met bloody ends.

The bloodthirsty madness of Scotland is contrasted in Macbeth with the peace and orderliness of the English court, where Edward the Confessor is described in saintly terms, manifest in his ability to heal scrofula by touch. Even this, however, was a nod to James who believed he had inherited divine healing powers – a delusion that afflicted monarchs until the late eighteenth century.

In some sense Edward is seen to cure Scottish ills through the help given to Malcolm by Siward and the English. Even if I’d got over the blasted heaths, weird sisters and psychopathy, were I a Scot, I think I’d be pretty fed up by the implication that troubles north of the border could only be sorted out by intervention from the south – especially as the English throne wasn’t particularly characterised by the orderliness of its succession.

James might, perhaps, have felt Shakespeare had a point. His family was not conspicuously happy since his father, Lord Darnley, had been blown up in 1566 – many people believing the murder instigated by James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots. She was later beheaded on her cousin Queen Elizabeth’s orders in 1587, while James’ uncle, Lord Moray, had been murdered in 1570 when acting as regent for the young king. And to make matters worse, in 1628 James’s lover, the Duke of Buckingham, was stabbed to death while his son Charles was beheaded in 1649 – though as James died in 1625 he missed out on those.

There were at least two attempts on James’ own life. In 1600, the Earl of Gowrie had tried to kill him with a knife, after which the king understandably took to wearing heavily padded vests. More famously, the Gunpowder plotters tried to blow him up along with the rest of the nobility in 1605. And since many involved in the conspiracy came from Warwickshire and some were acquainted with Shakespeare, the playwright had good reason to ingratiate himself with James, Macbeth’s main theme being that killing a king is never a good idea, especially if prompted by witchcraft.

The Gunpowder Plot itself is referred to in the play in Act 2 Scene 3 in which the Porter jokes that ‘here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.’ This may not sound as funny as it once did, but his audience would certainly have understood the allusion to Henry Garnet, a Catholic priest implicated in the conspiracy, who committed perjury when on trial but used his right to equivocate in self-defence.

It could be argued that the Porter scene reflects how little Macbeth is really about Scotland at all. For while the porter is a drunk, he isn’t particularly a Scottish drunk. Shakespeare makes no effort to give him a Scots accent or tropes of speech – he’d probably worked out that ridiculing the Scots wasn’t going to endear him to a Scot – so the Porter isn’t a comic Scotsman the way Fluellen in Henry V is comically Welsh. And if one were to remove the Scottish names, there is nothing intrinsic to Scotland in the play – which is why it works as well in Japan or South Africa or anywhere else. The insanity into which Macbeth and his wife plunge is not a Scottish madness. It is the psychic torment of anyone driven to extremes by ambition and broken by fear and remorse.

Although a formal Act of Union between England and Scotland did not occur until 1707, on October 20 1604, King James announced he was taking the ‘Name and Stile of King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland’ though I guess without asking anyone in France or Ireland what they thought of the plan. Those in Scotland and England were not keen. The former worried they would be subsumed by the larger entity. The latter fretted that all sorts of laws and treaties would have to be re-negotiated. Ironically, one of the ‘No’ campaigns major arguments was that in the event of Scottish independence, all sorts of laws and treaties would have to be re-negotiated. At least we were spared that.

On polling day I had visited the Scottish National Gallery. On the square outside a fence had been erected on which people had pinned their hopes for a brave future. One person had written,

‘I’ve been lied to

I’ve been bullied

I’m tired

But I won’t lie down my head to sleep until in an independent Scotland’

The following day was grey and rain had soaked the scraps of paper. Many had blown away or been removed. On my last day the sun was shining and the plaza at lunchtime was full of couples dancing to swing time jazz. Independence was on hold for another few years.

Digitally coloured image of weird sisters by Phill Evans (www.endsofinvention.biz), taken from forthcoming full colour comic book edition of Macbeth.


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